Part of any Bakersfield entertainment writer’s duties is writing about the two musicians who created the Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Although forever linked by the sound they created, the two music superstars couldn’t be any different.
That was the impression I was left with after covering them over 20 years ago as a reporter at The Bakersfield Californian.
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Owens was the ultimate showman whose music was perfectly polished. Once you earned his confidence, he was an open book to writers. Haggard was just the opposite.
Their differences were never more apparent than in 1995 when Owens and Haggard came together for their first joint performance in decades. They were not on good terms after Haggard married Owens’ ex-wife. Having written about both separately, it was my job to write about the event at the Kern County fairgrounds in Bakersfield that would reunite the pair in front of 5,000 fans.
There was no question Owens would be there. He had made Bakersfield his home, building an empire that included owning all the masters of his music, the top radio station in town and a TV station.
Haggard was the question mark. Financial troubles meant Haggard spent more time than he wanted traveling around in an old tour bus just to make a living. Those tours brought him to the Central Valley numerous times over the years, including a 1990 concert at Selland Arena with George Jones and Conway Twitty.
The Bakersfield concert meant a lot to Owens. The country legend talked in great detail about how much he was ready to get back on stage with Haggard. It wasn’t as easy to get Haggard to talk. It was only after some prompting from Buck Owens and Bonnie Owens (the former wife of both singers) that Haggard agreed to do a phone interview with me from the road.
Haggard and Owens were like night and day. Music wasn’t a business to Haggard. It was a way to express the feelings he had, fanned by seeing his family move from Oklahoma during the Great Depression and a youth spent in trouble with the law and health issues.
Haggard, like his music, had a rawness to him. He had no time for anything that wasn’t the drop dead truth. That made for a tough but informative interview.
Generally, the concert was a memorable reuniting of Haggard and Owens. The evening did end on a flat note as they were joined on stage by Dwight Yoakam to film a video for a new song at the time, “Beer Can Hill.” There were multiple takes of the trio lip-syncing the tune.
One way or another, Haggard made an impression over the years.
Rudy Parris, a country singer from the South Valley who was on “The Voice” and played in the house band at Buck Owens’ restaurant/theater, the Crystal Palace, vividly recalls his first Haggard encounter.
“I remember just turning 18 years old and hearing this music come out of the bedroom at a party I was at. It was the most beautiful voice that I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I asked everyone who it was. That very second I told myself I was going to learn how to sing. I have never looked back. Everything I am and everything I do in music is because of him,” Parris says.
Local musician Brad “The Dudeboy” Rogers calls Haggard “a spokesman for a culture as well as a generation.”
Haggard didn’t get as much attention as Owens over the years, but the renegade musician finally got the credit he deserved late in life. He was one of the 2010 Kennedy Center honorees, the same year Sir Paul McCartney was honored.